Barry Flanagan is pregarded as one of the fathers of British conceptual sculpture. His first solo show in London in 1966 (50 years ago since this one) was lauded as being progressive for its use of unusual and exhilarating materials. One critic described the show at London’s Rowan Gallery as “Animal, vegetable, mineral”, which seemed fitting to re-coin for the title of this exhibition. Curated by Dr Jo Melvin, the director of Flanagan’s estate, the show focuses on these seminal early works from the 50s, 60s and 70s that came to establish Flanagan’s solid reputation – many of the pieces in the show have remained behind closed doors for 30 years.
Penelope Curtis, the former director of Tate Britain, has described Flanagan as “a maverick figure, but a maverick who was absolutely central to the artistic conversations of the 60s and 70s”. One of the influential 1960s Central Saint Martins set, Flanagan was part of what at the time could be compared to the original YBAs. He challenged notions of what sculpture could be, pushing the boundaries past conventional materiality. His monumental fourteen foot long steel sculpture metal 2 ’64 (1964), which is included in the current show, elucidates his break from form and figure in a move that was part of a wider tide of western artists feeling constrained by the traditionality of their practices’ confines. This work in particular, contains precariously balanced elements, in a gesture against the rigidness of Central Saint Martin’s teacher Anthony Caro and his followers.
In the show, Flanagan’s work spans both natural and manmade substances, including plaster, cloth, sand, stone and bronze. These materials have then been questioned about how each may react to various forces such as gravity and heat, in order to create a final outcome – often a mentality contorted representation of its original. Several works in the show, such as maquette for 4 casb 2 ’67 (1967), 4 rashb 2 ’67 (1967) and one ton corner piece ’67 (1967) use sand to form in-situ sculptures. As the materiality of the substance pulls against the canvas, and falls in to piles, the form of the piece is controlled through its own restraint, gravity and friction. Video works such as sand girl (1970) show the same subverting of traditional sculpture but in this piece the sand is poured over the body of naked women, adding both three-dimensionalilty and temporality to the work.
Other works in the show depict Flanagan’s close affinity to the land art movement of the 1960s. Works such as ring on holywell beach and a line on holywell beach (1967) are notable interventions of landscape, simultaneously merging ideas of sculpture with intent and nature, while questioning the boundaries of form and time.
Born in Wales in 1941, Flanagan went on to study at Birmingham College of Arts and Crafts and Central Saint Martins (where he later taught). As a Royal Academician, representative of Britain at the Venice Biennale of 1982, recipient of an OBE and subject of a 2011 Tate Britain retrospective, Flanagan’s practice has helped mould and define Modern British art – his legacy is clearly resonate in the freedom with which artists explore their practices today, and seeing these early works bought together in London makes for inspiring viewing, especially considering their contextual originality.
Barry Flanagan; Animal, Vegetable, Mineral at Waddington Custot Galleries, 11 Cork Street, London, W1S 3LT. 4 March – 14 May 2016, admission free.